Ten seconds before the New Year’s midnight in a Johannesburg night club the dancing slows down. The patrons are counting down the end of 2011. I am watching all this on SABC 1, the most popular TV channel in South Africa. Once it’s officially a new year, the show cuts into a music video: the first song of 2012. The house beat starts playing. This could be the intro of any South African house song – they differ particularly little from each other. In a black and white video, the South African super star DJ Sbu drives around miming to smooth female vocals. This song is called “Lengoma” and it wasn’t originally a dance song but now it has been remixed by this jovial looking driver. The vocals are sung by Zahara – the new favorite of South African record buying audiences.

It’s not that surprising that Zahara should ceremoniously kick off 2012 since she has been dominating 2011 with her song and album “Loliwe.” Even the DJ Sbu remix of “Lengoma” won Hit Single of the Year in 2011 Metro FM Awards. Zahara has become the top pop artist in South Africa in a fairly short time but curiously enough, for the media, she has remained something of an enigma because she doesn’t appear to have any obvious unique selling points beside her talent.

When she’s being written about there aren’t any scandals and eccentricities available to be dwelled upon to describe her personality. What we get to read are comparisons – we need to understand everything through comparisons, it seems. Or at least that’s what the music journalist seem to think. The comparisons roughly fall into two main categories often depending on the depth of the article in question: those made by journalists who compare her to someone else because they are lazy or on a tight deadline and those comparisons made by journalists who in a self-congratulatory manner are showing off their vast musical knowledge. Neither one of these are particularly helpful in gaining any understanding on anything but the music journalism itself.

Her style is effortless. No weave or bikinis, but a tied afro and an acoustic guitar. Perhaps the familiarity Zahara has doesn’t remind us of someone famous. She is much more like someone regular with an enormous amount of talent — the media doesn’t get tired of talking about just how down to earth she is. It has become her public image. In interviews she resembles more an athlete than a performer, but curiously enough the media has spun her down-to-earthness into something out of this world. I can only imagine this to be awkward for her, but I guess it comes with the package they call success.

Zahara’s Afropop sound is organic. I don’t know Zahara personally, so I can’t say what she thinks, but I am left with a distinct sense that she’s content with her position in the lineage of the tradition. She doesn’t try hard to revive something old, but rather actively lives and manifests the point where that tradition of Afropop is at today. She is like no one and everyone at the same time, and her music is all very simple. Very catchy. It’s what pop music is all about.

But to assume that being able to make catchy songs and perform them is enough to be featured on the cover of the South African Rolling Stone magazine (cover above), as she has been, and enjoy seemingly never-pausing airplay is very naïve. A young woman from the Eastern Cape doesn’t get airplay because of herself but because of the people in whose interest her success is. TS Records, to which Zahara is signed, is a South African label that has a distribution deal with multinational major record corporation EMI through CCP records. It is owned and run by TK Nciza (who ‘discovered’ Zahara) and hit maker DJ Sbu.

Regardless of Zahara’s ‘imageless image,’ her image is looked after by TK’s wife, the former Mafikizolo singer and now solo artist Nhlanhla Nciza. These are well connected people. They make Zahara a success. They give her the credibility that sells. They are, as American music author Nelson George would say, the permanent business, who will be there whether the follow-up sells or not. They are the ones who make her a business.

None of this to be cynical though – these are standard practices in music industries and they are hardly Zahara’s fault. Perhaps they are no one’s fault, but that depends on your views on music as commerce as well as culture; and it is both of those things. None of this is to take anything away from Zahara’s undeniable talent and appeal. While her album is produced very professionally by Robbie Malinga, an artist himself, Zahara doesn’t rely on technology to sound good. Just with her presence and guitar she is able to put up a show that is fit for kings. It’s just to say that there are numerous talented individuals and groups out there who never get the big breakthrough in the traditional sense of the word. Some of them enjoy varying degrees of local stardom and many perhaps go and get another job as the music doesn’t pay the bills. The South African music industry model – to a large extent due to the country’s slow and expensive internet connections – rarely, if ever, allows artists without some capital and infrastructure behind them to be nationally known. Yet.

Zahara’s “Loliwe” album has sold well over 300 000 copies, which in South Africa is a huge achievement. Not all artists and albums by TS Records reach that point. Not many albums from any label do this well so no one can deny the role that the talent plays here. Perhaps the relationship between Zahara’s cultural aesthetics and her labels business acumen and connections are symbiotic in a fairly equal manner, but much more than a Cinderella story this is music business as usual. Only this time, they have found something other than sex, booze or affluence to market.* Zahara is not trying to artificially enhance herself and the fact that this sells records – more than anything else – is a very promising sign indeed.

* Not surprisingly, some South African bloggers compare her unfavorably to other performers who in the bloggers’ estimation appear more at ease with their sexuality.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.